You Need to Own a Balsamic Vinegar Hierarchy
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale is important, and you deserve it
Gamechangers is a new series about the little things that have improved our lives and made us unsuspecting evangelists. If you’ve got a Gamechanger you want to tell us about, email email@example.com.
There are a few things you need to know about balsamic vinegar if you do not already have borderline compulsive feelings about it. Number one, a good balsamic will remind you of syrup both in texture and taste. Number two, there's a good chance that you do not actually own any. And number three, a worthwhile bottle should just about bankrupt you.
Let me be clear before continuing that I am certainly not among the liberal elite (especially that last part) who insist on a $42 jar of black truffle mayonnaise for the one time a recipe recommended a dollop would make a nice garnish. I do not buy artisanal pretzels manufactured in the presence of Himalayan yaks. I am pleased when my local Key Food—which I've been told was Biggie Smalls's supermarket—runs budget-friendly sales on canned crushed tomatoes. I do, however, advocate strongly for shelling out upward of $100 for a bottle of real, honest-to-god balsamic vinegar—because in this case, you get what you pay for. And that's simply what it costs.
Extremely briefly (for Serious Eats already covered everything and you should go nerd out there right now and then return), not-dressed-up-in-costume, traditional Italian balsamic vinegar can actually only come from two places, Modena and Reggio Emilia. The Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale bottles must bear a D.O.P. ("Denominazione di Origine Protetta") marking that certifies its exact processing, quality, and ingredients—highly rigorous!—and even comes in distinct packaging. And did I mention that part makes it, like, expensive? Right.
And although perhaps it's just my frugal intuition that when a product that can go for $300 for 100ml you shouldn't cook with it by the cup, you actually legitimately shouldn't. This stuff is meant to be drizzled as a finished product—i.e. you should savor this shit like it's the last drop of water in the Mojave. Which brings me to the Balsamic Vinegar Hierarchy.
I used to date someone with better taste than me in many categories: clothes, furniture, social justice causes, and, naturally, food. Dissatisfied with my apartment's kitchen, he brought over two things: a real chef's knife and real balsamic vinegar. The first time he uncorked the bulb-shaped bottle, he told me to stick out my pinky, and he tipped out the contents. I was terrified they'd pour all over the floor; I didn't realize how viscous the vinegar would be, and the sweetness was so complex and pleasing that I took another dip when he went to the bathroom. (Then again, I did a lot of things he wouldn't think cool while he went to the bathroom.)
When we broke up, I knew he'd forgotten the knife. But what I was much more pleased to discover was that I still possessed the vinegar.
Upon moving in with my now-fiancé, I hooked him (a dude who has definitively never paid $100 for a bottle of anything) on the vinegar, too. It's now our "Sunday Vinegar"—in other words, it comes out when we're feeling pinky out. I can't make balsamic fried eggs with $100+ vinegar, and neither can (nor should) you. There are different use cases for different balsamic vinegars, and this is why you should own a hierarchy of balsamic vinegars. It should begin with still good-tasting, but relatively sort-of-crap vinegar for when you need to make something blah (Monday Vinegar), and then stuff with increasingly nicer compositions for dressing or frying things (Wednesday or Thursday Vinegar), and it should end with that final bottle of sweet, sweet Sunday Vinegar for luxury, because you deserve it. Pull out your credit card, and never look back.